By Mark Trevelyan

VIENNA (Reuters) - Yulia Stepanova, the Russian former drugs cheat whose whistle blowing revelations helped expose the massive doping problem in her country, could be allowed to compete in the Rio Olympics as an independent athlete, the IAAF said on Friday.

Stepanova, an 800 meters runner described as "a courageous athlete" by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), went into hiding after revealing the details of the problem, and now lives in the United States at a secret location.

With the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) extending its ban on Russian athletes on Friday, and with her mother country highly unlikely to have selected her anyway, Stepanova was hoping to compete under the flag of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

The IAAF had previously said the issue was a complicated legal and logistical one, but said on Friday the IAAF Council had changed its rules to clear the way.

"Any individual athlete who has made an extraordinary contribution to anti doping - in particular we include Yulia Stepanova here - should be considered favorably," Rune Andersen, head of the IAAF's task force investigating Russian doping, told a news conference.

"I cannot say she will compete in Rio but the Council said they will look favorably."

The words came as something of a surprise to Stepanova and her husband, Vitaly Stepanov, who were watching a live stream of the news conference.

"As of this morning we did not know if she would have a chance or not," Stepanov told Reuters in a telephone interview. "We were prepared to hear a negative answer.

"Now there is a chance."

It was now up to the IOC to decide on the issue, and that process could take several weeks, he added.

"It is really a sad situation in Russian athletics and in general international athletics," Stepanov said of the IAAF decision. "But if that's what it takes to make changes in Russia and globally then it should be done."

Evidence provided by Stepanov, a former Russian anti-doping agency employee, and his wife formed part of an investigation that led to Russian athletics being suspended from international competition.

Stepanov told Reuters that his wife thought the IAAF decision would make her even more of a hate figure back home.

"She said: 'In Russian athletics I will be hated even more now,'" he said, but added that the chance to compete again would be special for her.

His wife must recover from lower back pain before she can train again, something she hoped to do next week, added Stepanov.

The athlete, who has met the Olympic qualifying standard and has regularly undergone drugs tests, has maintained her training regime in the hope of being allowed in.

Last month she had told Reuters that it would be a dream come true to be an Olympian.

"If the best place I can get is the last place, I would still be happy," she said.

(Additional reporting by Mitch Phillips and Gene Cherry; Editing by Mark Potter/Peter Rutherford)